A Most Unserious Age
The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
by Michiko Kakutani
Tim Duggan Books, 208 pp., $22.00
In 1979, the year Michiko Kakutani joined the Times as a reporter, the culture was such that the predicament for thinking persons could be summed up in that politically incorrect period when only three major news networks competed for coverage (before #MeToo was even a thought, let alone a hashtag appropriated from a black woman, and the film’s squirmy romantic plot at best raised only a few eyebrows), by Isaac Davis’s impassioned rant in Manhattan from that spring:
This is an audience that’s raised on television. Their standards have been systematically lowered over the years. You know, these guys sit in front of their sets all day and the gamma rays eat the white cells of their brains out.
It’s a sentiment, this dumbing down of America fueled by mass culture (or “masscult,” as Dwight Macdonald sourly dubbed it), that was brilliantly expressed just three years earlier in the more-prescient-than-ever Network (“Television is not the truth”), and later echoed by Kakutani’s colleague at the Times, Anatole Broyard, whose exasperation at passive consumers who join book clubs — do they do so “just for the savings, or simply because they like belonging to clubs?” — led him ultimately to question in those very pages whether the hoi polloi hated art. And a frustrated Susan Sontag, who, as a public intellectual in the age of mechanical reproduction would often worry over a potential television appearance, asking herself, “What would Beckett do?” was at the time making amends after her transgressive interests in the ’60s (informed by her more immediate focus on the radical developments in film, which itself was now giving way to the cult of the blockbuster) led her to revamp an even earlier defense of what is objectively meaningful:
When I started writing in the early ’60s I was defending the ‘modern,’ particularly in literature, because the prevailing approach was very philistine. And for about 10 years, the views I espoused became more and more common. But during the past five years, it’s not as if people have gone back to the position they had before; it’s worse. Before, they didn’t like this stuff because they were ignorant. They didn’t even know about it. Now they don’t like it because they think they know something about it and feel superior to it. So you have to defend Schönberg or Joyce or Merce Cunningham.
I quote her at length to underscore the unanimity of this crises of comparatively recent vintage. In other words, there were still at least such things as facts (Joyce is great, Schönberg worthy of the canon) and a faith in objective reality (television is pablum and not a mimetic representation) at the outset of this Pulitzer-winning literary critic’s career in the immediate wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and, well, at least there were actual public intellectuals.
With the “hows” and “whys,” then, being all but summarized by her four-decades-spanning career, one whose beginnings oddly enough pursue a similar timeline to that of Donald Trump’s (a head-turning Village Voice profile on the brash real estate mogul dates back to January, 1979), his administration, with its obvious aversion to facts being the summum malum of anti-intellectualism, Kakutani assess our current foolish state of affairs with an expected muscularity. There were, she cites, 2,140 false or deceitful claims made by Trump in his first year in office. That that’s an average of 5.9 per day, and that his out-to-lunch (alas, even more Whoppers) style of governing is constituent with a larger trend of “truth decay” — in a climate where partisan deniers of any changes in such compete with anti-vaxxers, Holocaust deniers, and reverse-racism-claiming white supremacists to seemingly end democracy — are points she illuminates when describing a buffoonish figure (who, let’s not forget enjoyed an estimated five billion dollars in free campaign coverage from media outlets in 2016) as only someone with real expertise in the canon of literature, its intersection with the politics of the day, and a sense of humor can:
If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump — a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day) — she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility.
The 45th president, who is a direct byproduct of television seems, Kakutani continues, “like a “cartoon artist’s mashup of Ubi Roi, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and a character discarded by Molière.” Perhaps even cartoons are too nuanced, their illustrator’s ingenuity notwithstanding, to conceive of a man who, according to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson does not read (does one grow fond for those halcyon days when Sarah Palin simply didn’t recall what she read?), yet, despite his administration’s current and unpopular involvement in Yemen’s devastating civil war prefers picture-book-style “explanations” on foreign policy issues.
But what about the life of the mind? How has this all implicated some in the ivory tower with more than a passing interest in those tree-wasting innovations of Gutenberg’s, which they tell us will be extinct in some increasingly nearer future? There’s a section of particular interest where Kakutani recounts how Derrida disciple Paul de Man (one is reminded of the classic “Chappelle’s Show” sketch, “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong”) got outed in 1987 for a past life in which he reportedly wrote over 100 antisemitic articles for the publication Le Soir.
The irony, of course, is that deconstructionists like de Man were the first to argue that an author’s history is more important than the text itself. His ostensibly liberal and relativistic mode of interpretation, then, is trumped (no pun intended) by his actual history as an alleged anti-semite. This is hilarious, if not disturbing because it goes that much further in exposing — as Kakutani subtly and cleverly does — all of that supposedly well-intentioned deconstructionism and critical theory that was taught on American campuses throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s as a bunch of overly complicated nonsense.
At some point we should recognize that it goes without saying that an author’s particular history as well as her biases are baked into her works (the relative affluence associated with a leisurely holiday, albeit at a sanatorium, in Mann, or a fixation on his Lordship the Chancellor and all that lawyerly minutiae in Dickens, even as it’s counterbalanced by a disproportionately sympathetic fixation on orphans), and if we’d only read it correctly (by identifying, as Nabokov says, with “the mind that conceived and composed that book”) we’ll get all that that entails in the best possible way.
Again, such is a sensibility not unfamiliar to experts, certainly not to anyone reading these pages. That said, Kakutani references The Image, Daniel Boorstin’s prophetic 1962 book, which proved highly influential for deconstructionists and critical theorists, even as these left-adjacent ideas (i.e., “there is no truth, only truths, plural”) gradually and ironically were co-opted by the postmodern right, observing that
Much the way images were replacing ideals . . . ‘credibility’ was replacing the idea of truth. People were less interested in whether something was a fact than whether it was ‘convenient that it should be believed.’
Hence, Donald Trump and his preference for picture-book-style “explanations,” which are indicative of conservative mistrust of experts in general — the permanent left, if you will, with its penchant for facts and actual history and identifying, even, with the mind that conceives and composes a book — because too many of the so-called experts are the very ones telling these voters things that sound to them like overly complicated nonsense. (Nancy Pelosi’s recent decision, popular among both parties as the polls show, to postpone Trump’s State of the Union address is interesting to consider; it’s one that is ultimately a credit to the Speaker’s foresight, as there was no guarantee that his unruly, facts-averse supporters, who it turns out were for the most part equally discouraged by the longest government shutdown in history would view this as anything but exactly the kind of restrictive and unnecessary measure that makes them wary and/or disdainful of Pelosi and her ilk — experts the whole lot of them.)
The role, finally, that social media plays in the devaluing of the intellect is one that Kakutani interrogates with considerable insight in this taut and necessary tome, though the degree to which the Russians played a part in 2016 may be a tad overrepresented here, just as her suggested way out of this quagmire may be a bit generic, if not obvious: preserve our democracy as envisioned by the forefathers and protect our institutions. Her indictment, nevertheless, of that algorithm-driven hydra that is enabled by the social media cycle, where folks “live in increasingly narrow content silos and correspondingly smaller walled gardens of thought” feels appropriate in light of the erosion of a consensus reality now replaced by its polarizing simulacrum, where there are suddenly both Republican and Democratic “facts.”
This speaks, of course, to the legitimacy of our predicament, that it’s not just so simple as saying that in our increasingly fragmented, highly mediated world of today, it’s the conservatives and their kind who are wrong. And we just simply need to continue to trust our liberal media because, if anything, it’s on the side of certainty. No, it was our same liberal media which severely misjudged its own data to the point of dismissing the concerns, however irrational and motivated by hate, of entire regions of the US. There may be no immediate solutions. Yet Kakutani, with estimable erudition gleaned from a storied career overseeing the demise of high culture (from its late 20th-century leveling off to its evident present-day nadir), has written an acerbic and highly illuminating elective course, as it were, for our desperate post-truth era. Desperate times, as the cliché goes, call for desperate measures.